Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Indonesia's right to sovereign hypocrisy

By Lauren Gumbs

The state of Indonesia executed two foreign nationals last weekend and is planning to execute another two Australians in the next few months.

Their crimes were drug smuggling, in Indonesia’s eyes a heinous taboo that fuels its struggle with millions of addicts, around 40 of whom, it estimates, die every day.

To be fair the challenge is huge, 4.5 million addicts are undergoing drug rehabilitation and 1.2 million addicts are without help.

Indonesia’s massive population of 90 million young people are a ripe market not just for tobacco companies, but for drug traffickers as well.

Two weeks ago, Indonesia's BNN agents seized over 860 kg of ice, locally known as 'sabu-sabu'. 

It was one of the largest captures in Indonesia and South East Asia. 

The syndicate, wanted in seven countries, were arrested as they moved the drugs from China to Indonesia by boat, taking advantage of the country's 17,000 island entry points.

It is not hard to see how, like the US, Indonesia might declare its own ‘war on drugs’.

But is it alright to shrug and say, that’s the law in Indonesia so you should face the consequences?

The state is making a decision about who should live or die. 

An arbitrary decision based on the rule of law of the day.

Capital punishment is a human rights issue. It is not just a matter of sovereignty.

Capital punishment manifests the moral judgement of the state and that moral judgement is not fixed but subject to changing attitudes and socio-political situations.

In ten years the death penalty in Indonesia may not even exist.

By then it will be too late for the many who could have turned their lives around.

Despite Indonesia’s merciless stance on drugs, and President Joko Widodo’s uncompromising endorsement, drug smuggling is a non-violent crime that is perpetrated for many reasons, not least by people who have gone off the tracks and made bad decisions.

Banged up Abroad was readily available for many episodes on Indonesian pay television, replete with subtitles.

Anyone who has seen this documentary series knows that drug smuggling is far from black and white and that people can change for the better.

While that may be a tongue in cheek example, just look at Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, the two Australians facing the death penalty.

Not only would they never touch drugs again, they work hard to ensure others do not go down the same track they did.

This is successful rehabilitation. 

The dealer is now the spokesperson for change. The educator and the role model.

The application of judicial executions is a grotesque reprisal that adds insult to injury and creates a finality that no state should have the right to inflict.

According to the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, of which Indonesia is a state party, Indonesia has agreed to these terms since 2006:

“Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

Yet rather than arbitrary, Indonesia oftentimes regards drug related crimes as even more wicked than murder.

Indonesia has lobbied hard to have its own citizens released from death row abroad, going so far as to pay blood money for the lives of murderers, and it applies this fragile morality in-house as well.

Indonesia paid US$1.8 million in blood money to pardon maid Satina Binti Jumadi Ahman who was on death row in Saudi Arabia for the murder of her 70 year old employer in 2007.

During the 2014 presidential elections, Prabowo Subianto a presidential candidate, lobbied in person for the acquittal of maid Wilfrida, also on death row in Malaysia for murdering and stealing from her 60 year old employer.

While support for Indonesia’s much exploited domestic migrant workers (TKW) has the populist vote, so too does the death penalty for narcotics crimes.

Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) enacted a four year moratorium on capital punishment and even commuted some sentences before he was accused of being too soft and forced to wear his ‘tough and decisive’ hat again.

Schapelle Corby only narrowly escaped due to SBY’s clemency - and not without a backlash from the Indonesian public who saw him as kowtowing to Australia.

Jokowi (as the incumbent president is known), has surprised many with his tough streak and dived straight into a homogeneous intolerance of all drug traffickers, but his readiness to execute both his own and foreign nationals could yet stain his reformist credentials.

That Indonesia should resolve such a vengeance upon its own citizens, let alone foreign nationals who are not subject to the same severity in their own countries, is all the more perplexing given murder does not induce a state reaction on the same level as drugs.

In fact justice in Indonesia can be shocking.

For the torture and murder of three Ahmadiyah men in 2011, one of the perpetrators received just three months for bashing in the skull of one of the victims. Eleven others were also on trial and none of them received more than six month sentences – they were not even accused of murder. The ringleader got five months for illegal possession of a machete.

In one example of the thousands of un-investigated cases of extra judicial killings, three policeman who tortured and shot dead a supposed motorbike thief received just two to five years in jail.

Three soldiers who stormed a jail and killed four prisoners received between six and eleven year sentences. Their five accomplices received between four and eighteen months.

Islamic militants beheaded three Christian girls in Poso, 2005. Three men were arrested, one received 20 years and the other two 14 years each.

Abu Bakar Basyir killed 202 people including 88 Australians and yet he is allowed to live.

This evil is tolerated, yet drug dealers are blamed for society’s failings and considered a lost cause.  

Drugs kill people. Sectarian violence kills people. Extrajudicial violence kills people. Poverty kills people. Tobacco companies kill people.

Murder is not a legitimate mechanism for a state to use against its people.

For non-violent crimes it cannot be more obvious.

That people die every day in Indonesia from drug abuse is as logical as quoting the statistics for tobacco and alcohol deaths or car and motorbike accidents.

Almost the same amount of Indonesians as were killed by the 2004 tsunami, die each year due to tobacco related causes.

There is no evidence that the death penalty decreases drug use or drug smuggling.

Shooting the messenger is a useless revenge whose only roll on effects are further pain and misery.

It is a monstrous act on top of a bad one.

In Indonesia’s case, the right to take life is made bizarre and horrific by its profound hypocrisy and contradictions.

Deciding who to murder places a state in a moral conundrum, a subjective cultural perspective, where it cannot possibly legitimise itself in light of past decisions.

States that apply capital punishment to narcotics crimes see drugs as inherently bad, immoral and sinful and they are displaying their power over life and death, their legitimate right to decide when they can perpetrate violence within their sovereign borders.

Capital punishment for non-violent narcotics crimes are policies that fail to recognise the inequality and lack of opportunity that drives drug abuse.

There will always be people who fall through the gaps, but it is how we assist them that shows what sort of society we are and want to be.

Some progressive states regard drug abuse as an ‘illness’ rather than a ‘crime’ and they approach the issue in a humanitarian way that addresses society’s diverse health and mental illness problems.

Why not? States spend billions to fight the war on drugs, on incarceration, on police forces - and they get nowhere.

Instead of punishing and stigmatising, why not funnel some of that money into programs and services that treat or rehabilitate, that measure harm reduction, that respond to the needs of people, and that undermine the drugs black market by undercutting their products and providing some of them legally.

Deaths from drugs will drop, people will seek help, and the outlook will no longer justify death for dealing, but infer that dealers also get a second chance at life.

For example by regarding drug abuse as an illness, Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2000 and has seen a 63% increase in the amount of users in treatment and a 499% increase in the amount of drugs seized.

In Europe, by comparable population size, the percentage of drug users is half that of the US.

And half as many users die from overdoses by illicit drugs.

Europe spends its funds on the cure rather than the problem. And it gets results.

It does not have to execute dealers to ensure its citizens do not turn to crime, destroy their families or die from drug abuse.

America’s so called ‘war on drugs’ has failed and at this barbaric and short sighted rate, so will Indonesia’s.

It is time for Indonesia to rethink its drug industry and how it prevents drug use, deals with drug peddlers, minimises harm and treats those addicted to drugs.

Lauren Gumbs holds a Master of Communications and is currently studying a Master of Human Rights through Curtin University. Lauren is the Director of Social Media at the Perth based Indonesia Institute.


  1. Good article with such a difficult issue. Thanks ii for keeping a great balaced views.

    Ian Tomlinson
    KL Malaysia

  2. As you rightly state, a subjective cultural perspective leads to a harsh stance on drugs. You present a thoughtful, well researched article that hopefully encourages government to reassess the death penalty.
    Dawn. Australia.

  3. It’s neither helpful nor honest for the government and individuals to maintain the disclaimer that we respect Indonesia’s laws and sovereignty when discussing capital punishment.
    Let’s stop being mealy mouthed. We are not diplomats weighing fall-out or politicians calculating where the fleeting public interest lies. The death penalty is abhorrent, immoral, unequivocally unacceptable and we should say so whatever the consequences.
    Did we respect South Africa’s sovereignty when it legalised racial segregation? Do we respect Saudi laws on lashing dissidents and beheading maids? Do we respect Egypt’s jailing of journalists? And if ISIS sets up a state will we acknowledge its sovereignty?
    Did William Wilberforce ‘respect’ the slave trade nations while preaching abolition?
    This is not an argument about drugs or crime, but universal human rights that transcend borders, politics and the trade issues of the moment.
    Can we please get back to that great Australian quality of addressing a spade by its proper name. Capital punishment is judicial murder, and we should lead the way in condemning its use everywhere and support those progressive Indonesians working towards abolition.

  4. a really great article Lauren and the first one I've read on this issue in the past few days that encompasses many aspects of the debate while maintaining a balance. It is sad that these two young men, and others facing the same fate, are now at the mercy of a highly politicised and public process. I think you are right that Jokowi has surprised us with this tough stance and I agree it will be interesting to see how this tough approach coalesces with his reformist, progressive form. I can feel sections of the Australian media and public ready to pounce if the execution proceeds but I am glad that you have shown that you can still love the place and its people while at the same time criticise issues honestly and respectfully.